Ian Baraclough insisted news of Northern Ireland’s relegation in the Nations League had no bearing on their final preparations for Wednesday’s draw against Romania.
Northern Ireland were condemned to the drop when UEFA announced shortly before kick-off that Romania had been awarded a walkover win and three points from Sunday’s cancelled match against Norway, leaving Baraclough’s side six points adrift at the foot of Group B1 going into the final game.
Once on the pitch, Northern Ireland battled to a 1-1 draw, taking the lead through Liam Boyce in the 56th minute but conceding an 81st-minute equaliser to Eric Bicfalvi which left them still without a win in 10 games in this competition.
UEFA’s verdict was announced a little over three hours before kick-off at Windsor Park, with Baraclough learning of the outcome just as he was about to start his final team meeting, though the news came as little surprise and did nothing to alter his plans.
“We only found out watching Sky,” Baraclough said. “It was what, two hours before kick-off? So that was nice of them. But it was what we expected. It wasn’t going to change our plan. It wasn’t going to change our thoughts.
“We wanted to end on a positive note and but for the last 10 minutes it was a very positive performance.”
Baraclough restored Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart to defence but still had a young side out in the absence of Steven Davis, Niall McGinn and others, giving a second start to Ali McCann and a debut to Matty Kennedy, while Ethan Galbraith made his bow off the bench in the second half.
“I thought we were solid in our shape,” Baraclough said. “We didn’t give up too much. We could have held on to the ball a little bit better going up to the front men, but I saw a lot of good things from the players.”
It was the second game in a row where Northern Ireland could not hold on to a lead after two goals in the last 10 minutes condemned them to a 2-1 defeat in Austria on Sunday, but Baraclough said no blame should be attached to his players.
“I’ll take responsibility,” he said. “We wanted to change things around. We were very inexperienced towards the end. We have five players who are 24 and under on the pitch and for us as a group to go forward that’s important.
“We’ve got to give game time to those players in tough situations.”
Arsenal defender Dan Ballard, on loan at Blackpool this season, was beaten by Florin Tanase in the build-up to the equaliser, but Baraclough praised the 21-year-old’s attitude.
“Dan is disappointed he got beaten on a give and go and he’ll learn from it because he’s a very conscientious player,” he said. “The first thing he did at the end was he said, ‘Sorry gaffer’.
“Nobody kids themselves that they have to learn but he’s playing his fifth international and he’s only played three or four league games. He’ll be a lot better for that.
“We all make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes and we’ve just been punished for them. But apart from one long-range shot that Bailey (Peacock-Farrell) tipped over, and the goal, I don’t remember too many other times when they breached our back three.”